Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Blue Shirt

(Author's Note: This story first appeared in on 10/19/01.  I've since realized that seems to be turning up page captures of certain old stories from that publication, but not sure how.  This is how I stumbled over this one again.  It's worth re-telling here.)

I couldn't stop staring at Lee's peach-fuzz mustache. Laid out in his coffin, he was wearing a dress shirt, hands folded over chest. It was my second wake, as my grandmother had died two years earlier, so I knew how to act. Stand over the coffin for a few minutes, contemplate the corpse, then move on for the next in line. I felt insincere and self conscious, but hadn't yet realized these were standard feelings in the presence of a corpse.

Lee threw me with that mustache. It was so cheesy looking, not like him at all. We had fallen out of touch in the latter half of our senior year of high school when he started dating a girl in that obsessive way teenagers and stalkers have in common. I hadn't seen him in the eight months since we graduated high school. The mustache looked fake. I wanted to reach down and tear it off, miraculously yanking him back to life and out of this charade. But I knew it wouldn't budge. Maybe it's one of those things, I thought, that hair and nails keep growing even after a person dies. But if that were the case, wouldn't Lee have a five o'clock shadow? The rest of his face was as clean and ashen as a tombstone. Even his acne had disappeared.

Of course, the real reason I focused on his mustache was to deny the horror of one of my friends dying at eighteen. According to the article in the local paper, his grandfather had found him in his mother's garage "working on his car with the motor running." This was in February, two days after Valentine's Day. The article vaguely stated there was "no foul play" in his death. But it didn't state that if he were working on the car, he would be doing so because it wasn't capable of running. If it was, he'd be tinkering with the engine, not spending the hours it would take for carbon monoxide poisoning. Lee was an intelligent kid, in no way stupid, which he would have had to been to work on a car in a closed garage. I had heard he had been drinking a lot around that time, so it's possible he could have gotten drunk, went out to the garage, started the car and passed out. But I knew that dead was dead, and it made no difference, at least to me. He had turned the key and faded himself out of this world.

I don't believe in ghosts, but I've been feeling haunted by Lee lately. I hadn't thought seriously about him for years, then a few weeks ago, I spent days dwelling on his death, to the point of tears I never bothered to shed back then. I keep picturing him, fading in and out of consciousness behind the wheel of that car, only instead of driving down a placid country lane at night, he's staring through the gloom at a cinderblock wall with tools hanging on it.

If there's one thing I've realized as I've grown older, it's that the mind plays tricks on us, especially with memories. I paged through my Class of '82 yearbook recently, and the first big picture is of the entire class gathered in a field behind our ugly pillbox high school. We're all decked out in red and blue, the school colors, kids grouped together in various social castes, cheerleader girlfriends perched on jock boyfriends' shoulders, stoners slouched over and completely ignoring the camera, the great middle class of kids in between saying cheese.

The legend of this picture is my friend Schwamy standing next to me. His shirt is an other-worldly, phosphorescent blue with what looks like a fingerprint on his left shoulder. His shirt was white that day. The photographer took six different pictures. In each one, Schwamy's whipping a bone at the camera, the middle finger of his right hand plainly visible on his left shoulder. I was doing the same, smirking the whole time, only I had my arms folded, with my hands wresting on my biceps, which ended up hidden behind the bodies in front of me. Schwamy had the shit luck of having his middle finger exposed every time. He had the fear of God put into him by the powers that be and was forced to pay for the amateurish alteration to the final picture. In that picture, my friend Tony is on my other side, smiling like a dork, and Lee's on the other side of Tony, grinning placidly.

It is now virtually impossible to see that picture without dwelling on Schwamy's bold statement, as all the other memories around that day simply involve getting out of class and standing in a field for half an hour. Some of what we did back then has become legend, retold in tall tales over the years, in bars and living rooms, relating to a time in our lives that our minds try to tell us was free and easy, but I can usually recall as being wrought with teenage insecurities. With Lee, it bothers me that I can hardly remember a thing about him, and we were good friends for six years. All I can think about is Lee dying the way he did, although random memories of him, like his trademark cackle, surface now and then like passing shadows. I recognize these as glimpses of what it will mean to be truly old.

There was a strong case for suicide. How many people accidentally die in closed garages with a running car? Lee's family had been plagued by bad luck. His parents split when he was a kid, with his father moving his medical practice out of town. He had two older brothers and an older sister. One of the brothers was a smart, well-adjusted kid who went on to become a doctor. The other died in a car crash when Lee was 12; my mother can still recall him crying hysterically at the funeral as Lee had idolized him. A few years later, his sister's boyfriend shot himself in the head in the driveway of his mother's house. All this transpired before Lee fell in love for the first time in our senior year. As with most kids at that time, he had no idea what he was in for. The girl was pretty -- a junior with a reputation for being clean-cut and intelligent. All the guys in our social circle, including Lee, were dicks with women, either being too shy to make anything happen, or so desperate that we smothered any potential relationship. Maybe it was supposed to be that way. The guys who did go steady came off as either lecherous perverts hiding their true selves from their girlfriends, or already docile husbands being dragged around by the balls.

Whatever Lee was with his girl, I had no idea, as they both floated into that stormy, elusive world of teenage love. Couples like this dotted the hallways between classes, necking openly and leaning as far into open lockers as they could to avoid teachers, the guy holding his arm around the girl's neck in a way that suggested a minute mood swing could find him strangling her. Most of them were doomed and blissfully unaware of it. When the inevitable break-ups occurred, stories circulated of vicious fights and occasional physical threats. That, or the wounded boy would do something melodramatic, like call the girl at 11:00 on a school night and play "Telephone Line" by the Electric Light Orchestra into the mouth piece.

It was routine behavior for a guy in love to become estranged from his friends, and Lee was no different. This coincided with our graduation, so that I completely lost touch with him. I went off to a local branch of Penn State, and Lee, like a lot of kids who didn't enter college or the armed forces, had no idea what to do with his life. All I knew is that he was living at home, with a minor reputation for drinking, and that he had broken up with his girlfriend -- hardly an uncommon scenario at the time. Whatever transpired between them, I had no idea, save that it was over. The next time I saw him was in a funeral casket.

A strange thing happened about six years after that. I had moved to New York and was in that annoying mid-20s phase that can only be described as counterfeit middle-age. I still hear it now with twentysomethings complaining about how they feel so old -- a concept laughable to anyone old enough to know better. What they're really trying to say is that they're clinging to a teenage sense of time -- and they are old by this pitiful standard -- but haven't yet adapted to the reality of time, that it keeps moving no matter how one perceives it. They're longing for a world that no longer exists for them. Couple this with the first few tastes of a real job with no end in sight, and it's easy to feel ancient at twenty-six.

I did what most people do in this condition: drink too much, thinking it somehow romanticized my plight. I wasn't alone -- the city was crawling with dimestore Bukowskis. We all had treasured stories of waking up on the sidewalk next to a puddle of vomit, or realizing the redhead at the bar we had thought was a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman more strongly resembled Carrot Top in the morning light.

It was in this state that I took the bus home one holiday season and went out drinking Christmas night with a few friends. Most of the bars were closed, but we found one open, a real dive we usually never went to, but had no choice. This bar had a back room with a pool table.

We went back there, and sitting in the shadows was Lee's old girlfriend. She had on a spandex leopard-skin top and a tight pair of jeans. Smoking. Still pretty, but harder around the eyes. It was a look I normally associated with older people who had been through the ringer a few times. She had road miles on her face. There was another woman with her with that same slightly used-car look.

At first, we kept our distance, but after a few rounds, we found our way into a booth and started talking about legendary teachers and their quirky habits. She had the accent: that thick Coal Region brogue of northeast Pennsylvania, a hybrid of guttural Eastern European and elongated Irish. That accent, to me, was someone's way of saying they were always going to live there, a sort of unconscious, working-class dedication to home, even if it meant scuffling for low-paying jobs in a place left devastated when the coal boom ended decades before we were born.

We were all flirting. The thought of scoring with Lee's old girlfriend intrigued me, although I knew there was nothing romantic about a drunken romp, no matter what the personal history. As we kept drinking, it became obvious that no one would be getting laid that night. And when that bridge was silently crossed, Lee's old girlfriend looked straight at me and said, "You were one of Lee's friends, weren't you?"

I could tell by the way she said it that she'd been sitting on that one all night, waiting for the right time to bring it out. We had gotten paired off at one end of the booth, and no one else could hear us. It wasn't an accusation, just an honest question. I said yes. The hardness drained from her face, and she told me as much as she was willing to tell. They were in love, things had gone wrong, and they simply had lost control of the situation. Nobody's fault, just the way things played out. She didn't say when they had broken up, or what the final blow was. Her accent fell away when she spoke about this, and I could see the studious girl she had been in school lurking just beneath the surface.

The worst thing she told me, and she wouldn't be specific, was that some people close to Lee had blamed her for his death. This had wounded her deeply, that her first love would always have this ugly coda. Her confession happened in the span of a Def Leppard song on the jukebox. At the end of it, she got up and went to the ladies room, and I just sat there staring at my bottle of Yuengling. She came back a few minutes later, and I could tell that she had been crying. No one mentioned Lee again, and the night played out in that hazy, late-night drunk manner of nostalgia and small talk.

The last thing I remember was stumbling to the car with my friends, looking over my shoulder and seeing her at the door of the bar at closing time. She waved at me and smiled. It was one of those frigid clear winter nights with no snow on the ground. I had long given up on church, much less the midnight mass my family would go to for Christmas. But there was something in her smile and the wave of her hand that made me think of those nights. It was tradition at those masses for the priest to hand out small boxes of chocolates to the children on the steps of the church as we exited. Now that I was so old, I was getting a hangover and mixed emotions instead.

At our 10th year class reunion, Lee, and a few other people from our class who had died young, were the objects of a fairly bizarre tribute. I went to the reunion over Thanksgiving weekend at a catering hall back home. Twenty-eight years old -- no longer "middle-aged," but closing in on the brick wall of thirty. This had the potential for a terrible time, but I ended up having a ball. It was great to meet old friends again, and a pleasant surprise to find that life had beaten us all down enough that even former enemies could sit down and commiserate over a few drinks.

But off in the corner was a table with four lit candles on it to commemorate those classmates who couldn't be with us that night. Never mind that only 60 people showed up from a class of over 200. There were plenty of living classmates who couldn't be with us that night because they hated high school and thought the reunion would be complete bullshit.

Lee was the second candle. The first was a kid named Kyle, one of Lee's friends, who had shot himself in the head at a bush party two months before graduation, inexplicably blurting out the word "cheeseballs" before pulling the trigger. The third was a girl named Carol who had a congenital heart problem all through high school and watched her days fall in numbers even then. The fourth was Danny, who was drunk driving home from a block party when he veered into the wrong lane, hit another car head on at top speed, and took two other people with him to the other side.

Some shit-assed DJs had been hired for the night, leisure-suited morning zoo types, and it was easy to ignore them so long as they kept a steady flow of Billy Squier, Styx and Journey. Near the end of the party, they started pulling out all the stops nostalgia-wise, and I could see they were going to close out the same way every high-school dance ended in 1982: Skynyrd and Zeppelin, baby, "Freebird" and "Stairway to Heaven." "Freebird" came first, and it got the dance floor crowded with nearly everyone, even when the song sped up and made the guys do more than slow dance.

 The song was met with a huge round of applause. From the stage, one of the DJs directed our attention to the table with the four candles, stating that this last song was for those of us who couldn't be here tonight, yes, the special ones who had left us early. I was sitting at a back table having a beer with an old friend when the gentle opening strains of "Stairway to Heaven" echoed through the hall. What happened next was a mass exodus from the dance floor. I could hear people muttering "fuck this" and "this is sick" as they passed on the way to the bar. The DJs had hit a raw nerve with the crowd, who didn't want to see these deaths exploited. The dance floor was empty before Robert Plant spouted his first line of lame hippie swill.

I hadn't seen that one coming, nor had the DJs, who snuck behind curtains and speakers when the song ended. There were scattered boos. Most people were milling around the back of the hall, men and women alike toting beers in both hands before the bar closed and muttering about the DJs' tastelessness. Ten minutes later, it was old news. I never liked that song. If people were going to be this offended, I reasoned, the DJs should have gone for broke, dedicated "Highway to Hell" to Danny at ear-splitting volume and beat ass out of there before they got ran out on a rail.

I hadn't been aware of it, but Lee is buried in the small Protestant cemetery on the hill in my hometown. He lived in another small town with its own cemetery a good 10 miles away, so this was a bit of a shock to me. In our town's cemetery, there used to be a wooden rail fence dividing the Protestant and Catholic sides. We used to love dangling upside down from it by the backs of our knees, even if it meant getting splinters. The fence is gone, but I gather that sense of separation is still there, embedded in family plots that will take years to fill out.

When we were kids, that cemetery represented life more than death to us. It was a great place to sleigh ride in the winter, careening our Flexible Flyers around the tombstones on daredevil runs to the bottom of the hill. There was a wide open patch on the Protestant side that served as a good football field. Summer nights found us playing jailbreak (a derivative of hide-and-seek brought to us by my Point Pleasant, NJ cousins) or telling ghost stories by those spooky graves with lit candles on them. I tried in vain to walk off my first drunk on the Catholic side late one night, shamefully vomiting next to my grandmother's grave and wiping the sweat from my brow with my grandfather's Memorial Day American flag.

People came there on Sundays and major holidays to pay their respects. This looked like hell to me. Distracted parents and their ungrateful kids badgering the shit out of each other. Older people weeping by their loved ones' tombstones, planting flowers and kneeling on the grass with dazed looks on their faces. Yapping dogs on leashes marking their territories on tombstone corners.

All they were trying to do was remember, and there's nothing wrong with that. I can see that to do so with honesty and clarity is the best tribute to someone who is gone. A subtle form of hell may be the inability to remember at all, as it leaves a sort of emptiness easily mistaken for freedom. I think of Schwamy's shirt and recognize that my memory has been like that bad touch-up job, substituting an unreal shade of blue for pure white, all to avoid that unacceptable middle finger of our youth.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Skunk-Weed Factor

It was the first thing I noticed stepping onto the subway train Friday morning: the unmistakable, pungent aroma of skunk weed marijuana.  I hadn’t noticed the faces coming off the train, only two or three people, none of them struck me as the kind of people who would get tuned up on a subway train.  But who knows.

Over the past few years, not one day has gone by when I’ve been walking the streets in New York City where I haven’t at least once, usually more than once, passed through an invisible skunk-weed cloud somewhere along the sidewalk.  It’s disturbing.  You like smoking weed?  That’s fine.  Doing it in public in broad daylight is another thing, just as wandering around getting drunk off your ass tends to get you in trouble with the law.

The odd part is I rarely see anyone smoking.  The few times I have, it’s always been surly, irritated looking street kids who make a point of making eye contact and don’t look mellow at all, dude.  They look like they want to be confronted over what they’re doing.  Meaning they look like assholes.  Meaning I leave them the hell alone, much as I’d like to be King Canute ordering back the sea.

This holds as true in midtown Manhattan as it does in Astoria.  I gather in Astoria what I’m smelling is someone getting high in his house or apartment.  I don’t think people smoking this stuff have any clue how deeply penetrating and lasting the odor of skunk weed is.  The "normal" smell of marijuana I've known for years is like jasmine in comparison.

Three instances underline this.  One was some jackass getting high in the bathroom of a Pennsylvania-bound bus a few months ago.  Usually it’s cigarette smokers who don’t realize that whatever you do in a bus toilet, everyone on the bus can smell.  (This is why I never shit on the bus unless it’s an absolute emergency, a tacit rule understood by touring musicians and other experienced bus riders.)  But there I was, headed back to PA, relaxing, listening to some Spoon on my headphones, when I’m overwhelmed with that shitbird, dorm-room stench of skunk weed.  I seemed to be the only person to know what it was!

The second was recently at the gym in Astoria.  In the locker room, getting changed.  My gym’s locker rooms, no matter which branch location, are often a mildly negative experience.  Sharing close quarters with overgrown babies stumbling through life with faux tough guy/weightlifter mentalities, acting like entitled private-school brats in terms of leaving towels everywhere, spitting gum into urinal guards, pissing on toilet seats and floors, expecting everyone to cater to them, etc.  I don’t recall this gym visit being particularly negative, but I do recall sitting there, getting dressed after showering, and once again being overwhelmed by the skunk-weed smell.  Jesus, I thought, is someone getting high in the bathroom?  Then I realized, it was the teenage kid next to me: the pot stench was coming off him in waves!  Obviously, he was getting high daily, probably multiple times a day, and the smell had simply absorbed in to his clothes and hair … maybe even his skin?

The third was last week at work.  Let that sink in.  High-powered Manhattan office.  We’re not as officious as in the near past, what with the advent of corporate casual, but it’s a pretty uptight environment.  I walk into the men’s room mid-morning …. BAM!  That overpowering odor.  I longed for the usual smell of shit in its place?  I’m used to stumbling onto the remnants of bad behavior in the men’s room – somebody shit on the floor last month, somehow, you tell me, as I didn’t see any dogs, bears or monkeys in sailor outfits in there previously.  But the skunk weed smell was the last odor I expected.  No one was in there.  We had a bunch of guys in the office that day, outside vendors, doing various construction projects.  Thus I’m assuming one of those guys went into a stall at some point in the morning and got high or, just as likely with the gym experience, the guy gets high so much he exudes that earthy skunk weed musk 24/7.

I make that connection with construction/blue collar and skunk weed because with the streets of Manhattan, as noted, while I smell skunk weed all the time on the street, I rarely see anyone nearby smoking.  How is this?  And I’m not talking a brief whiff.  I’ll be walking 25-50 feet and find myself navigating through that odor for a good half minute.  This is midtown Manhattan: office buildings, banks, drug stores, Fedex, restaurants, retail stores. 

My only explanation is the cars on the street, in particular the vans noting various construction companies on their sides (plumbing, air conditioning, carpentry, etc.).  I’m assuming guys are getting high in the vans.  There’s one spot on 36th Street, just north of Macy’s between Broadway and 7th Avenue, where that smell lasts almost the whole block!  The one constant I see is either these vans on the street or actual construction workers in their hard hats working on a seemingly endless project, who tend not to be the solid wall of braying, short-haired, working-class white guys of yore but more a melting pot of younger black, hispanic and white guys.  And I’m guessing instead of hitting the local Blarney Stone for a burger and a beer, they’re simply getting high at lunch.

Also, regarding cars: I’ll often get the skunk-weed smell while walking home over the 59th Street Bridge, something I do most Fridays during daylight savings time.  Not fellow pedestrians doing this.  Not even the assholes of the universe, bicyclists.  It’s coming from passing cars on the bridge.  People are getting baked while driving in rush-hour traffic in Manhattan … in case you already weren’t freaked out enough by the debauchery of NYC drivers!  Unlike the Simon & Garfunkel song, I am not left “feeling groovy.”

Am I wrong to be offended by all this?  Of course not, and I’m not asking your average person who would obviously agree with me.  I’m more so asking people who get high on a regular basis.  Are you cool with this?  Do you get high in public?  Around children?  Openly on the street during work hours?  While driving?  I can see getting high in a club parking lot late at night.  Or something like Mardi Gras or an outdoor concert.  Certain places in public make sense.  But just as I don’t normally see people stumbling around drunk on the streets of the city during my work day, I can’t quite grasp how this is somehow acceptable with marijuana instead? If smoking skunk weed in your apartment, fine.  But you should understand, people passing by on the street can smell a patch of skunk weed on the sidewalk in front of your apartment, like passing a house with a faulty sewage system.  Imagine living a floor above or below, or next door to this dude (always assume it must be a dude to be this far into weed), especially with young kids, and having that choice made for you.

Is this acceptable, or common knowledge that I’ve somehow missed?  I’m more than willing to cop to that as I’ve divorced myself from so much of popular culture, but I haven’t been reading anything in print or on the web that recognizes this daily ritual for the past 2-3 years.  No public outcry, no pleas for legislation to address the issue.  I guess that’s why I write some pieces, because I’m a bit flummoxed that I’m not parroting some clichéd, obvious story about stoners blatantly getting high in public circa 2017.  It’s only happening in New York?  I strongly doubt it (especially in Colorado)!  I’m surely not getting a “Viva La Revolution” vibe from all this either; it’s more a “suck my balls, bro” vibe from people who no longer seem to care about much of anything.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Chuck Berry's Inferno

March 18, 2017 3:15 a.m.  Wentzville, Missouri.  Chuck Berry, delirious from the medications his doctor has prescribed as he nears death, wanders down an alley adjacent to his house.  He’s wearing a captain’s hat and a white, knee-length night gown.  No shoes.  He’s carrying his electric guitar in a case in his right hand, and an empty brief case in his left.  One last show, he mutters to himself, get the cash up front.  Do what I do.  Get the hell out before they know I’m gone.

As he walks, a strong gusty wind picks up, gale force, causing Chuck to stumble.  His gown ripples in the wind like a flag on a pole as his captain’s hat blows away.  He starts coughing, feeling like he’s not going to make it more than a few steps before collapsing and dying.  This is it, he thinks.

The wind keeps pushing him down the road, and Chuck closes his eyes to avoid the dust and debris, bracing himself for what will surely be his last fall.  He still hasn’t fallen as the wind subsides, actually feels himself getting stronger.  He opens his eyes and realizes he must be dreaming.  He’s wearing his black show suit from 1957, complete with pressed white shirt and bow-tie.  A pair of black-and white wing tips on his feet, white socks.  He’s not just walking … he’s duck walking, something he hasn’t been able to do for decades due to his knees.  This is the most realistic dream he’s ever had, and he starts laughing.  As he gets his bearings, he realizes he’s somewhere in the deep South, can smell the delta on the breeze, a sugar cane field spreading out on the left side of the road.  Cicadas buzz in the trees.  Crickets chirp in the field.  A bullfrog belches in a nearby pond.

Chuck comes to a crossroad and feels déjà vu, although he knows he hasn’t seen this place in years.  There have been so many southern crossroads in his life, most just as vacant and directionless as this.  He notices a shadowy figure sitting in a lawn chair under a cypress tree, an empty lawn chair next to him.  As Chuck walks nearer, he realizes, that’s not a person sitting in the lawn chair.  It’s Satan.  Just as he remembers seeing him the first time as a teenager in 1947 when he got out of prison for armed robbery.  Long, lean, all red, with a human body, naked, with yellow eyes and black hair swept back in a pompadour, hooves instead of feet.  Chuck picks up the smell of sulphur, which he also remembers.  There’s a large, clear gallon plastic jug at his feet, filled with a clear liquid, and an upside-down stack of dixie cups.  The next smell on the breeze is moonshine, over-powering, almost like gasoline.

Satan: Hello, Chuck, I’ve been waiting for you.  Come, sit with me and imbibe on this summer night.

Chuck: It ain’t summer, Mr. Satan.  It’s coming up on spring.

Satan: It’s always summer in hell.  Here, it's always the heat, not the humidity.

Chuck: Hell?!  You’re telling me I’ve done gone to hell?!

Satan: Where else would I be?  I got rid of your night gown.  Made you look too much like an angel.  I’ve also given you back your youth …. you’re welcome.

Chuck: I guess I should thank you for that much.

Satan: No need to thank me.  It’s all part of the contract.

Just hearing the word “contract” makes Chuck freeze up.  He signed hundreds of them in his lifetime, most of them forbearing bad news masquerading as good.  Son, here’s that big contract, and that shiny new Cadillac I promised you, he could hear the record-company man from New York telling him in a parking lot in Manhattan.  Not quite realizing the cost of the Cadillac, and the biannual royalty checks that were promised monthly, were all he’d see of the fortune his music was making for these thieves.  Still, they afforded him travel, mass adulation, the illusion of prestige, women, but Chuck knew these were trinkets and baubles compared to the real money they were stealing from him.  Thus, the empty brief case, important in its own way as the guitar case.  Get the cash up front, contractually-agreed-upon fee, provide a service, then leave.  Still, it was coming back to him, that first contract he signed with Satan …

Chuck: You know, I was a minor when I signed that first contract back in 1947.

Satan laughs heartily.

Satan: In God’s court of law, we don’t fret over such trivial informalities.  You knew what you were doing.

Chuck: Yes.  I sold you my soul in return for talent, wealth and fame.

Satan: And as you saw, your talent started a social movement and made you world famous for about five good, productive years.  Just long enough to afford you a legacy you could build the rest of your life on.  That’s the standard issue rock-star contract, and you were the first.  Of many.

Chuck: Did they all come down to the crossroads the same way I did?

Satan: Oh, no, I make house calls.  As you recall, the bus was gone by the time you got released from prison, so you had to walk back to town, and that was the perfect time for me to introduce myself and make my sales pitch.  I got Lennon and McCartney in a church parking lot in Liverpool.  God, the Quarrymen were such an awful band.

Chuck: How is it that Lennon got shot down in 1980 and McCartney is still alive?

Satan: Lennon started pitching a fit around the time that he wanted out.  Even swallowed his pride and called up Allen Klein again to see if he could negotiate a deal with me.  Well, you know, I like Allen Klein, a lot.  He works for me now; he’s very good with numbers.  But he’s no Satan.  Originator of third-person self reference.  I took umbrage and created what you might call a Short-Term Modification Agreement that provided me with a more immediate Return on Investment.

Chuck: You had some maniac kill him.

Satan: Well, on the plus side, I gave him a legacy that was something else entirely.  And I don’t have to remind you of what Yoko Ono’s singing voice sounds like.

Chuck: Please don’t remind me.  I nearly murdered her on The Mike Douglas Show in 1972.    They cut to commercial but I had the guitar over my head and ready to bring it down on her before those hippies in Elephant’s Memory jumped on me.

Satan: Imagine being married to someone that clueless.

Chuck (singing): Imagine there’s no heaven.  I wonder if you can.

Satan (singing): No hell below us.  Above us only sky.

Satan laughs and takes a long sip of moonshine from his dixie cup.

Satan: I gave him that line, you know, back at the mansion in Tittenhurst, while he was busy imagining no possessions.

Chuck: Mr. Satan, if this is hell, what am I doing here?  This doesn’t feel like punishment.  I know I’m a sinner and have spent a life time not losing a minute of sleep over the bad things I’ve done.

Satan: Come on, now, Chuck, trying to get on my good side now.  There’s a reason I swooped down out of the sky and picked you.

Chuck: Why?

Satan: Partially for what you just stated.  Your unapologetic nature.  That’s a very admirable quality in hell: it’s essential to understanding pure evil.  And when you understand pure evil, you understand human nature.

Chuck: Understanding don’t make it right.  Or me any smarter.

Satan: No, but it gives you self-awareness, again, another essential quality.  You knew what you were doing when you committed those armed robberies.  When you transported that teenage girl across state lines at the height of your fame.  When you stopped paying your taxes.  When you started filming the women’s restroom in your restaurant.  Phew.  Chuck, if I was wearing a cap right now, I would be tipping it towards you.  Hats off, friend, your resume, while slight in comparison to the real heavy hitters of mankind, is impressive.

Chuck: I chose evil over good.

Satan: And that wasn’t even in the contract!  That’s why I like you so much.  I didn’t ask you to choose anything, not even in the fine print.  I simply made a transaction.  You could have lived your life like a complete saint afterwards, performing nothing but good acts and spreading charity the rest of your days.  And we’d still be sitting in these lawn chairs at the crossroads right now.

Chuck: If I’m such a lightweight, why the special treatment now?

Satan: That’s just it. The acts of your private life were minor evil.  Most of it was just chasing skirt, which is high-school stuff in hell.  Don’t you understand what you created with rock and roll?

Chuck: It seemed to do a lot of good in terms of creating harmony among different races.

Satan: In a very surface, menial way, sure.  You see how people are.  With supposedly open minds and hearts in their youth.  And they grow out of it.  More importantly, they spend the rest of their days covering their own asses, and a lot of that verbose teenage goodwill turns into empty nostalgia for the saints we never were.  But when you get down to it, all those hell-fire preachers at the time were right.  It was the devil’s music.  It’s mine.  I’m not even speaking as Satan now.  I’m speaking as an agent of God, a reluctant employee, if you will, sent off to work in a dusty corner of the basement, to do the dirty work, of enticing mankind to realize his free will and sometimes pay the consequences.

Chuck: I didn’t feel like I was possessed by any evil spirit when I was writing those songs.

Satan: You weren’t.  That was all you.  Again, I saw these things in you walking down the lonely two-lane black-top in 1947.  You understood the appeal of a teenage girl standing by a jukebox playing her favorite song.  Or how good hamburgers taste in America.  How good it feels to slam the pedal to the floor on a large, eight-piston automobile.  You could verbalize these basic human thoughts and emotions.  And this is where I came in.

Chuck: How?

Satan: I granted you the musical talent, particularly through the electric guitar.  And I’m glad to see you brought it with you!  But I took what T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, and Ike Turner and so many others, were already doing, fed that raw talent into you, and allowed you to so perfectly marry those basically innocent thoughts and emotions onto my, the devil’s, music.  I should point out here, hell is not inherently evil.  Much as heaven isn’t purely virtuous.

Chuck: I take it you and God work on a sliding scale.

Satan: Well, yes, but in my case it tends to slide down.  The larger issue, for me, is that you showed the world the duality of evil.  It isn’t all “evil” in any traditional sense.  It’s sex.  Drugs.  Rock and roll.  Did you enjoy these things?

Chuck: Hell, yeah!

Satan: Good.  You were supposed to.  I should point out to you, most of the great musicians of the world, rock or not, are down here.  They either signed the contract early on or were just bad people to begin with, albeit highly-talented bad people.  Much of their talent was often tied into understanding that duality.  That what they were doing was pure in some sense, but not necessarily good or evil.  At their best, they moved freely between both and couldn’t tell the difference.

Chuck: This doesn’t sound like the Adolf Hitler, Charlie Manson type evil most people see as being pure evil.

Satan: For good reason: it’s not.  I’m not all evil.  I used to be an angel!  God picked me for a reason: he knew I understood this, inside and out, and that I would do exactly what he asked me to do.  I wouldn’t even call this temptation.  Was rock and roll, in and of itself, evil?  No, it was great music, electric guitars and drums, a beat you could dance to.  Music that felt like liberation and escape.  But those crazy preachers, back then, were tapped into that higher power and knew, correctly, that God did not create this.  I did.  And I didn’t create it in a void either.

Chuck: You created it here.

Chuck draws out his arm to take in the crossroads and the sugar cane fields in the dark of night.

Satan: That’s right.  The blues.  Sharecroppers with beat-up acoustic guitars, sitting on porches, a generation or two removed from slavery, three or four generations from African tribes, simply doing what their ancestors had always done: play music in the night to make sense of the darkness.

Chuck: Was Robert Johnson the first one you met at the crossroads?

Satan: Yes.  And he got ripped off, I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, gave him a raw deal.  One recording session in a hotel room that sounded like shit, and he goes and gets himself killed a short while later, basically chasing tail.  I felt so bad about him that I sent him to heaven when his time came,  God was pissed off at me for getting the first one wrong, but I got the formula down pretty fast, surely by the time I met you.

Chuck: So, you got me here, Mr. Satan.  Now what?

Satan: As I said, Chuck, I like the cut of your jibe.  I could make a challenging hell for you.  Oddly enough, The Mike Douglas Show with Yoko Ono offering her background vocal talents was the first thing that came to mind. 

Chuck: Oh, for the love of God, please, no. 

Satan: I don’t want to punish you.  I want you to work for me.  You signed a contract, after all, and consciously chose to come here.  If you hadn’t?  I’m not even sure you’d be here.  Aside from being a pervert, a bit of a prick and a little nuts, you weren’t really all that evil.  And the good you did was enormous in terms of showing the world how tightly intertwined good and evil are.

Chuck: What kind of work is there to do in hell?

Satan: Oh, you have no idea, it’s a 24-7 job, and then some.  Evil never rests, nor do I.  Which is why I could use some help.  I need someone to take over the crossroads.

Chuck: Are we talking in theory or right here where we’re sitting?

Satan: Right here.  There are no theories in hell.  This is where it all happens.  We’re somewhere in Mississippi right now, but this is just the template.  The crossroads could be anywhere.  Lennon and McCartney met me where two alleys crossed behind that church parking lot in Liverpool.  In a perfect world, every signing would take place somewhere like this, but, no, just two roads intersecting, to represent possibilities and fate, could be where a Walmart service road meets a McDonald’s drive-through lane in Wisconsin.  I’m not picky.  Many a soul has been signed over waiting for an order of large fries and a chocolate shake.

Chuck: But I’m not the devil.  People are going to come up on me and just see this young black dude sitting in a lawn chair.

Satan: That’s not the Chuck Berry I know!  It’s just as well they don’t come to the crossroads and see me.  I'm too cheesy now, too clichéd, they’ll think they’re being pranked.  Imagine coming to the crossroads to sell your soul, and Chuck Berry is sitting there.  That’s a much more cool, easy-to-grasp transition for most young musicians to make.

Chuck: What do I do exactly?

Satan: For starters, open up your briefcase.

Chuck opens up his briefcase to find a five-page document on legal paper.

Satan: That’s our boilerplate agreement.  No redlining allowed, no amendments, no subordination agreements, in short, none of that legal bullshit that makes hell such a miserable place with all the lawyers down here.  You just figure out what they want in terms of talent, wealth and fame – it’s almost always the same deal – and get them to sign the agreement in their own blood.  Bowie knife, small cut on thumb, fountain pen, yadda yadda yadda.  Once signed, they will be sent down the road they need to go, whether it takes them to a recording studio, or a stage, or just a quiet room to start writing their songs.  You can read it, again, to make sure you understand the fine points.  Understand the balloon payment.

Chuck: Balloon payment?

Satan: Their souls.  The final payment reflecting the last installment and all outstanding interest that’s accumulated over the years.  I’ll still handle the collection and closing procedures – you’re not ready for that – but you’d be the perfect front man to entice them into singing in the first place.

Chuck: Any chance I’ll get to heaven?

Satan: No.  And I think you’ll find after awhile, you’re not going to want to go there.  You’re allowed to do anything here that you did in life, when you’re not working.  Camera in the ladies room?  Buddy, not just that, I’ll send Marie Antoinette, Venus de Milo, Josephine Baker, Maude Fealy and Marilyn Monroe to your restaurant and make sure they get a belly on.  How do you like them apples?

Chuck: Oh, I like them apples.

Satan: Best of all.  Pull out your guitar.  Let me show you something.

Chuck takes his electric guitar from the case.  Satan stands and pulls up a long black vine that was at the base of the cypress tree.  Chuck had thought maybe it was snake, like in the Garden of Eden, but it’s just a power cord.  Satan plugs it into Chuck’s guitar.

Satan: Go on and play something.

Chuck strums the introduction to “Around and Around.”  The cypress tree radiates blue and gold light to match the sound of the chords played on the guitar.  The only remotely similar vision Chuck has seen in his life that compares is the Northern Lights he saw once while touring Norway.

Chuck: Wow!

Satan: Understand that when some young musician comes walking down the road, wherever that may be, if you’re plugged in and playing, that’s the first thing he’s going to see, this celestial shower of light, whether emanating from a tree, a building, wherever you find the power source.  If it isn’t enough that they recognize you as Chuck Berry, and most of them will, this sight will surely encourage them to sign their names on the dotted line.

Chuck: This is working out better than I thought it would.

Satan: Don’t get too excited.  If you hadn’t noticed, the overall state of music has been in a slow decline since your time, the innovations over the decades decreasing, musical trends dragging on for decades instead of a fruitful few years, the quality of the stars diminishing to the point where it seems like there’s a shit-flavored ice-cream factory in Orlando, Florida turning them out.  Your job is not going to be easy.  The devil’s AR man.  These days I can’t guarantee that even if you find someone with enormous raw talent that they’ll end up rich and famous.  They’ll more than likely end up making a modest living playing theaters and clubs, and spending a lot of time bitching about the three-digit checks they get from Spotify after their hit song gets 5,000,000 plays.

Chuck: Is that in the contract?

Satan: Yes.  And much like you, even when it mattered, these kids won’t read the contract! 

Chuck: Seems like you thrive on the stupidity of humans.

Satan: That’s one thing me and God have always had in common.

Chuck: One last thing.  How do I find this talent?  Where are these people?  How do they wander down this road and find me?

Satan: What do you remember of meeting me?

Chuck: Just that I was fresh out of prison, felt like my life was about to end before it even began, and that I had nowhere to go as I walked down that road.  I had no purpose.  I didn’t care about anything.

Satan: You were open to persuasion?

Chuck: Sure. I had nothing going for me.

Satan: Exactly.  That’s the key.  But let me show you how I found you.

A beach-ball size globe appears at Chuck Berry’s feet, glowing in the night, an exact replica of earth.  Chuck could hear faint snatches of music in the night: rock, jazz, classical.  Voices singing acapella in different languages.  Choirs.  Natives chanting.  Violins.  Synthesizer beats.  Mandolins strumming.

Satan: Touch the globe, but only with your index finger.

When Chuck touches the globe, the music that had been floating around in the night air ceases, and he faintly hears an acoustic guitar picking out slow chords.  His finger is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  He moves it towards America and hears nothing.  He traces his finger back towards Europe, and the guitar grows louder.  He pushes towards Scotland.  John o’ Groats, on the northern tip.  Chuck now hears the guitar as if the player is sitting next to him.  The playing is extraordinary: an odd mix of classical, celtic and acoustic blues, like nothing he’s heard before.  This kid’s good, Chuck thinks, he’s on to something.  The globe, slowly morphs into a room that Chuck finds himself viewing through a window.  He sees a skinny young man in t-shirt and jeans, red hair, bedraggled, playing in his bedroom in a small row house on the end of a rainy, windy block.

Chuck: Hey, Mr. Satan!

But Satan is gone, as is the Mississippi night.  Chuck finds himself at a cold, rainy bus stop in John o’ Groats, Scotland.  The rain is practically falling sideways with the wind.  Chuck is still wearing his show suit, sees his reflection in the bus shelter’s glass: he’s still young and handsome.  He’s cradling his electric guitar on his lap, his briefcase at his feet.  The town is desolate at three in the morning.  The bus stop is at an intersection: a closed fish-and-chip shop across the way.  Chuck hears footsteps approaching: the young man who has been playing guitar, out walking at night in his hometown.  Chuck plugs his electric guitar into an outlet on the bus shelter and starts playing, “Back in the USA.”  The glass on the shelter pulses with the glowing blue and gold light.  The young man is awestruck, partially by the light and sound, but also because there’s a black man playing electric guitar at a bus stop in John o’ Groats at three in the morning, and he looks and sounds a lot like Chuck Berry.  He approaches the bus stop.

Chuck: Hey, there, Liam.  It’s Liam, isn’t it?  Why don’t you come in out of the rain, and let me show you this here guitar.